The first section of The Pitchfork 500 was entitled “Year Zero”, as this was time when rock music effectively started again, as punk exploded into a million shards which spread through the music world. But the next section starts with another almost entirely new musical form – hip-hop (or rap, if you prefer. I’m not even sure what the distinction is myself, frankly). Whilst the likes of Gil Scott-Heron and The Last Poets had made spoken-word soul back in the late ’60’s and early ’70’s, the impact had been limited. This is the music that would mutate from the funk-based rap on show here, to the world-encompassing monster of Gangsta rap and the commercial, more tuneful music of Kanye West and Jay-Z.
1980 saw hip-hop explode out of the Bronx onto an unsuspecting world. Whilst parties north of 135th Street had for a number of years been livened up with rapping, shout-outs, and general good-natured mayhem, record companies didn’t catch on until signing Kurtis Blow in ’79, and Sugarhill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight” became a hit in the same year.
These four tracks all share the same traits, in that first and foremost, they were songs to make you dance. Kurtis Blow’s “The Breaks”, his second single, spells it out clearly enough – the IRS can be chasing you, your woman’s run off to Japan with another man, your mum is nagging you about the phone bill, and the Mafia are on your case about some money you owe them, but he’s got the breaks to make you dance your cares away. Whilst thankfully I haven’t had to deal with most of those problems – if Kurtis rapped about trying to get a 3-year-old to eo to bed, that might be more appropriate to my life right now – this is party rap in excelsis. He’s not called the “Father of Hip-Hop” for nothing, you know.
And the tune is so funky that even nearly 30 years later, it has the power to make Germans dance:
“Monster Jam” by Spoonie Gee Meets The Sequence is a top example of how early hip-hop was a much jollier place than the later gangsta rap. Featuring the all-girl trio The Sequence, the rappers do their stuff over the house band playing funky beats, not too dissimilar to “Good Times” by Chic. When you think of old skool, this is one of those tunes you think of.
The Sugarhill Gang gang’s “Rappers Delight” was the first true rap hit. It was hit around the world, and rightfully so, thanks to its deft mix of disco and hip-hop. So, a great tune, and genuinely ground-breaking – a bit of history. Which makes it rather odd that Pitchfork chose “Eighth Wonder” as their representative tune on this list. Even the article in the book spends far more time talking about “Rappers Delight” than it does about the tune they actually chose. Odd. That’s not to say “Eighth Wonder” isn’t a great track – it is – but it’s like picking “Friction” instead of “Marquee Moon”. Or “The Man With The Child In His Eyes” instead of “Wuthering Heights”. Or “Hand In Glove” instead of “This Charming Man”. You get the idea. Great songs, yes, but not the ones that should be on this list.
So anyway, “Eighth Wonder” featured the new Sugar Hill Records house band, comprising none other than Doug Wimbish, Skip McDonald and Keith LeBlanc, who later went on to make records with Mark Stewart (of The Pop Group) as Mark Stewart and the Maffia. What a great musical connection – that a lanky bloke from Bristol and one of the leading lights of post-punk met up with the guys who played the music on some of the earliest rap hits1. Isn’t music grand?
In any case, Sugarhill Gang – the rappers Wonder Mike, Big Bank Hank, and Master Gee – weren’t really from the Bronx rap scene. Indeed, Big Bank Hank stole his lyrics for “Rappers Delight” from Cold Crush Brothers, who really were from the Bronx scene, and these two facts caused the Sugarhill Gang to be treated with disdain by the original rappers. This was the first major beef in a genre that’s been plagued by them, to the extent that people have been killed over slanging matches. You don’t get that sort of passion in shoegaze, you know.
And finally, The Treacherous Three’s thing was quick-step wordplay, and “The New Rap Language”, which featured the aforementioned Spoonie Gee, was an early classic. This was the music that influenced the likes of Eric B and Rakim, Run DMC and Beastie Boys – basic, fluid beats, with some astonishingly dextrous rapping on top. Yep, they really do say “Supercagifragilisticefpialidocious” in the opening sentence – and that sets the scene. And yep, the rapping is largely about how bad they are, how they please the ladies, and how great they are at rapping. But who cares when it’s as dazzling as this?
To someone who’s never been a big fan of either Gangsta Rap, with its bitches, guns and ho’s, or the autotuned poppery of Kanye (I was always much more a fan of Public Enemy, the Daisy Age tunes of De La Soul et al, and more recent stuff like The Roots and Common), these tunes are a breath of fresh air. They remind you what rap started off as, and before it got waylaid into violence and drugs, what life-affirming, joyful music it was. I feel quite cheered up now. Oh, here comes The Clash to annoy me again…
1 But not “Rappers Delight”, incidentally.
The whole list is available here.